By Sumit Khanna
AHMEDABAD (Reuters) – Seven members of the Jadeja family were returning from a temple in the Indian town of Morbi on Sunday when the children asked to be taken to a suspension bridge, a local tourist attraction that had reopened after repairs.
Around 6:20 p.m., the low-hanging, colonial-era footbridge, which was heaving with hundreds of sightseers, suddenly gave way.
The Jadejas were among at least 134 people killed in the accident, one of India’s deadliest bridge collapses, a relative and a family friend said.
“They were on the bridge when it collapsed,” said Kanaksinh Jadeja, a cousin of the two Jadeja brothers – Pratapsinh and Pradyumansinh – who lost their mother, wives and four children.
The brothers were at work at a hotel they run in the small industrial town at the time but realised something was amiss when they got home around 8 p.m. to find the door locked.
“None of the family members’ phones were reachable,” the cousin said. “They realised something was wrong and then they heard about the bridge collapse.”
Some 400 people had gathered on the narrow bridge over the Machchhu River on Sunday after buying tickets to visit the landmark, which was built in 1877.
The Oreva group, makers of clocks and electrical products, had been awarded a contract this year to maintain and manage the bridge for 15 years, according to local officials.
Municipal official Sandeepsinh Zala said Oreva had not informed local authorities about reopening the 233 metre (255 yard) bridge and had not been issued a fitness certificate to do so.
An Oreva spokesperson did not answer calls and text messages from Reuters. The Indian Express newspaper quoted an Oreva spokesperson as saying: “… the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other.”
The Jadeja siblings first rushed to the site of the disaster but they could not find any of their family, said their cousin.
Dozens of people had clung onto the cables and twisted remains of the structure. Some tried to swim to safety. Many others, including children, drowned.
The brothers then went to Morbi’s government-run civil hospital, about a kilometre from the riverside, where they found their mother’s body around 10 p.m.
The bodies of their wives and the children, aged between five and 10 years, were brought to the hospital later in the night, where they were identified by the bereaved brothers.
All seven were cremated early on Monday.
Narendrasinh Jadeja, a friend of Pratapsinh Jadeja, described the Jadejas as a contented and close-knit family that all lived together in Morbi.
“I cannot express how angry and helpless I am feeling,” said Narendrasinh, a lawyer.
Police have registered a criminal case against unnamed persons responsible for the renovation, maintenance, and management of the bridge. Nine people have been detained.
The government of Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi where Morbi is located, has formed a five-member team to investigate the disaster.
(Reporting by Sumit Khanna, Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Alison Williams)